Film study: Is the Cowboys offense good enough for a deep playoff run?

Touchdown Wire’s Laurie Fitzpatrick breaks down the Cowboys’ passing game to determine if there is cause for concern.

The Dallas Cowboys are pretty much a lock for the NFL playoffs heading into Week 16, boasting a three-game lead atop the NFC East with three games left in the regular season.

Their defense is forcing turnovers at an impressive rate and playing at a high level overall. But can we say the same about the offense?

From what we’ve seen of the Dallas passing game over the past few weeks, it makes you wonder if the Cowboys (10-4) are capable of making a deep playoff run.

This Cowboys offense has gone from fourth in the NFL to 16th in passing DVOA since Week 10.

Dak Prescott completed 201 of 286 attempts (70.3%) for 2,341 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions in his first eight games of the season. But in his past five games, he’s 136 of 206 (66%) for 1,257 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. Importantly, his yards per attempt has dropped from 8.2 in his first eight games to 6.1 since.

This Cowboys offense is not the same.

Ugly wins against sub -500 teams can be a cause for concern. That’s not what you expect to see from a Super Bowl contender. Ultimately, will the Cowboys be able to elevate their passing game to the same level that their defense is playing at?

The simple answer is — yes.

In recent weeks, blanket coverages have forced the Dallas offense to make adjustments, and without explosive plays, scoring has become more difficult.

Since losing to the Denver Broncos in Week 9, the Cowboys offense has seemingly been in malaise. Opponents started regularly dropping four or five defenders deep into the secondary, aiming to take away the Cowboys’ playmakers, and Prescott has started forcing throws.

Defenses are no longer using a single high safety, or even two high safeties, like the Cowboys saw earlier in the season. The Broncos changed how teams are defending the Cowboys.

On the interception Prescott threw against Denver in Week 9, the presence of safety Caden Sterns in the middle of the field took away the quarterback’s high-low concept reads.

Prescott had the shallow crosser open to tight end Dalton Schultz, but instead, he went for the dig route at the second level. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get it over the defender in the middle of the field, Sterns.

The Washington Football Team came out in a similar look in Week 14. When Washington dropped its middle linebacker into coverage, Prescott wasn’t able to drop the ball into the hands of wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Instead, the throw sailed on him.

The Cowboys only used a few plays to attack the middle of the field against Washington, but when they did, it was successful.

In the clip below, running back Ezekiel Elliott motioned from the slot and opened up the middle of the field when linebacker Cole Holcomb shaded toward him. Without any reads, Prescott trusted his eyes and made the throw to Lamb to keep the sticks moving.

But unfortunately, the offense didn’t use this strategy consistently.

On the play below, the Cowboys drew up a great play to get the ball into the middle of the field — and wide receiver Amari Cooper is open. But instead, Prescott forced the ball to Elliot, who was running a fade into the end zone. If this was a wideout running a wheel route, maybe this would be successful, but it’s not a huge mismatch with a running back against a linebacker.

Against the New York Giants in Week 15, Prescott took some deep shots. But as the game progressed, he focused more and more on moving the defender in the middle of the field. He does this successfully in the two clips below, completing passes to Lamb and Schultz, respectively.

 

If Prescott continues to exploit soft coverages over the middle, defenses almost certainly will begin stepping up in order to shut down those shorter passes — and that is when the deep passing game will begin to open up again.

If that happens, perhaps the offense can revert back to its high-scoring ways from earlier in the season and make a run at the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 26 years.

Has Taylor Heinicke done enough to be Washington’s quarterback of the future?

Touchdown Wire’s Laurie Fitzpatrick breaks down the film to analyze the skill set of Washington QB Taylor Heinicke.

The Washington Football Team is in an uncertain spot when it comes to their quarterback of the future.

Taylor Heinicke has shown some resilience this season. After taking over for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick in a season-opening loss to the Chargers, Heinicke rallied a fourth-quarter comeback against the Giants. After a 2-2 start, Washington endured a four-game losing streak. Then, after the bye week, Washington went on a four-game winning streak.

It’s been an interesting but bumpy ride with Heinicke under center, and last week’s loss against the Dallas Cowboys may have confirmed one thing; it’s unlikely that he’s the future of the franchise, but he can certainly help his offense win and make a playoff run when his team is healthy.

When we go to the tape, Heinicke has showed positives throughout the season, but also some concerns.

After the bye week, Heinicke was looking to get his team back on track after four consecutive losses. Washington traveled to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers, who were already 6-3 on the season, and Washington hadn’t beaten a team that was above .500 yet.

Washington’s defense held the Bucs to only 14 points and allowed only four third-down conversions, but what Heinicke did in the passing game was impressive as well. He finished 26 for 32 and had 256 yards through the air with one touchdown and a 110.4 quarterback rating.

Heinicke attacked the Buccaneers’ secondary and tore through their defense using play-action and pre-snap motion.

Heinicke has a receiver concept on the right side of the field with three defenders deep with man-match coverage underneath. The wide-out (top of clip) ran his cornerback out of the play, and this left the tight end one-on-one.

A few weeks later against the Los Angeles Raiders, another motion from the tight end identified zone coverage underneath with a safety over the top. With a concept route, post/corner, Heinicke only had to throw in the gap within the zone — which he did with ease.

When we go back to the Buccaneers game, we see that common theme between the motion and concepts which exploited one side of the defense. These throws get harder against Cover-3, as those gaps in the zones get smaller.

However, Heinicke has shown an ability to find openings in Cover-3 man under, Cover-1 zone under and Cover-3 zone under.

On the play below, Heinicke used motion to identify zone coverage. The play-action holds the safety, Jordan Whitehead, near the line of scrimmage, which leaves a little bit of space between the first and second level of the defense; Heinicke was lucky this one wasn’t picked off.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Heinicke with play-action this season is 106 of 146 for 1,188 yards, eight touchdowns, and no interceptions. Without play-action, it’s a different story, as he had completed 172 of 272 passesfor 1.743 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

When we move to last week’s game against the Cowboys, Dallas’ defense had seen Heinicke’s success against zone and play action, so they threw in some disguises post-snap to force Heinicke to go through all of his reads.

On this play, the linebacker dropped deep into coverage, taking away Heinicke’s initial reads in the middle of the field.

Instead of just remaining patient and throwing the crosser, as he wasn’t being pressured, Heinicke tried to check down, then scrambled when he realizes his back was covered as well.

When we go back to Week 5 against the Saints, New Orleans’ defense used that same tactic.

Play-action gave Heinicke time to read linebacker Demario Davis, but when Davis dropped back to pick up the receiver, who is attempting to split the deep safety, Heinicke needed to move to the next read. It was too late, and Heinicke took a sack. Dallas used this same tactic last week.

When Heinicke saw a dropping linebacker paired with a heavy pass rush, instead of settling for the shallow completion, he forced it deep.

Washington had to basically abandon play-action when they faced the Cowboys because of linebacker Micah Parsons’ 4.3 speed.

Not having the advantages of play-action really hindered Heinicke’s performance. He wasn’t settling for the shallow passes, continued to throw into triple coverage in the middle of the field. Opponents won’t continue to leave their corners on an island, and when they do, they will make sure they blitz to force him into bad decisions.

Heinicke is a capable system quarterback who can thrive in situations where his defense and rushing attack can help him win games. But unless he’s in a heavily-schemed offense, he’s unlikely to beat a team that he shouldn’t beat.

Just as long as Heinicke doesn’t turn the ball over, he puts the Washington Football Team in a decent position for playoffs; as they play only one team that is above .500 for the remainder of the season.

Beyond this season, Washington will have an interesting decision to make. Do they want to develop Taylor Heinicke as their quarterback of the future, or do they attempt to find a quarterback who is more scheme-transcendent?

Film study: Why Giants WR Kadarius Toney could become the NFL’s most versatile, explosive weapon

Touchdown Wire’s Laurie Fitzpatrick breaks down the film to examine the elite skill set of Giants WR Kadarius Toney.

It’s not unusual for rookies to need some time while they acclimate to the faster and more challenging level of play in the NFL.

But just a few weeks into his debut season, New York Giants wide receiver Kadarius Toney already appears to be making a leap. No NFL player has formed more missed tackles (eight) in the past two weeks than Toney, and last week he set a Giants rookie record with 189 receiving yards against the Dallas Cowboys. That eclipsed the previous record of 185, set by none other than Odell Beckham Jr.

Toney, the former Florida Gators star who was drafted No. 20 overall by the Giants this year, is an above-average performer with the ball in his hands. He can juke guys out of their cleats with twitchy lateral cuts and the ability to get upfield extremely quickly.

In the season’s first three weeks, Toney was only on the field for an average of 34% of the Giants’ offensive snaps. But as his playing time increased, he began to impress. But now, injuries to Kenny Golladay and Saquon Barkley will give Toney the chance to play a primary role in Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams — although he will face a difficult assignment playing opposite standout cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Let’s take a look at the film to examine why Toney is special:

There are three things about this play above that stand out. First, Toney slows down during his break to ensure that quarterback Daniel Jones can see him at the top of his route. Second is the body adjustment at the catch. Third is how he used the momentum from the ball being thrown behind him, then quickly turned toward the defender and juked him.

In Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints, Toney started to put opponents on notice, pulling in six catches for 78 yards. On the play below, he jukes no fewer than six defenders.

Let’s not overlook Toney’s crisp release at the line of scrimmage, either. The press coverage of Saints rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo is no match for him.

Right now, short and intermediate routes seem to be where Toney excels the most, with only has a few defenders remaining in the secondary to beat.

Early in the season, Toney was mostly running jet sweeps, but his usage has been expanded downfield in recent weeks.

Then came last week’s breakout performance against the Cowboys, when he recorded 10 receptions. Not only did Toney make opponents miss in man-to-man defense, but he showed excellent post-catch awareness against the zone. (See below.)

One area of concern for Toney coming into the NFL was his route-running ability and whether he can he clean up his steps against elite corners. However, the clip below shows him beating NFL interceptions leader Trevon Diggs one on one.

Toney’s route running is smooth yet sudden. He shows an ability to get separation at the top of routes and body adjustment at the catch. Importantly, he gets north and south quickly with top-end downhill speed.

Giants head coach Joe Judge elaborated about Toney’s skill set recently:

“It shows up in terms of the extended runs and breaking tackles, but he has great instincts,” Judge told the media earlier this week. “He has really good vision on the field of seeing where there’s an open space, no matter how small it is. He’s got a very good short-area change of direction and burst coming out of that first step to stop and go very quickly.

“He’s also got that long speed to stretch the field and really separate over space, so he’s obviously a unique player with a very good skill set. Maybe the biggest thing that really helps him, more so than the physical attributes, is how intelligent he is on the field.”

Toney is dangerous no matter where he lines up. In addition to being a threat out wide, Toney can be effective in the backfield receiving the snap as well. Toney was a high school quarterback who attended the Manning Passing Academy, so he has both the ability to throw the ball or tuck it and gain a few extra yards.

Last week, Toney even took a snap and ran a read-option. If his success in multiple areas continues, he could become a candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Sunday’s game against the Rams and his matchup against Ramsey will be a good measuring stick for his progress.

Film study: How Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs already has five picks

Touchdown Wire’s Laurie Fitzpatrick breaks down how Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs is getting so many interceptions.

Coming from University of Alabama, Trevon Diggs is accustomed to playing in the spotlight.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he hasn’t been overwhelmed on the big stage with the Dallas Cowboys. Four games into his second pro season, Diggs leads the NFL with five interceptions. In addition to his three picks in 12 games last year, he now has eight in his first 16 professional games.

Few predicted that Diggs would be playing this well, considering the Cowboys ranked 28th in the NFL in points allowed last season. So far this year, Dallas ranks 16th in the league in points allowed.

Meantime, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been putting Diggs into positions where he can succeed this season. Every level of the Cowboys defense boasts extremely good athleticism. Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons can rush the passer or drop back in coverage effectively. Veteran linebacker Jaylon Smith possesses impressive speed at the second level, and safety Damontae Kazee is great in coverage.

With all that in mind, let’s go to the tape and examine how the Cowboys are using Diggs.

Every week, Diggs lines up against the X receiver, who is usually the top playmaker out of a team’s receiving corps. So in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Diggs was lined up across from Mike Evans.

On this play, it’s all heads up by Diggs. He watches the offensive line running upfield and sniffs out the screen.

Diggs relied on his eyes, liked what he saw and attacked. However, this strategy almost got him in trouble later in the game against Evans.

On the play above, Evans runs a comeback route. But it’s Tom Brady’s last read, so since Evans already made his break toward the ball, he decides to cut back upfield to get open. Diggs already had tried to jump the route and appeared to be beaten on the play. Fortunately for Diggs, his length saved him. Diggs is 6-foot-1 with 78inch (which ranks in the 90th percentile for defensive backs), and he was able to stretch, recover and get the pass breakup.

In Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Diggs covered Keenan Allen when the Cowboys lined up in man coverage. As you’ll see below, Diggs has a knack for jumping routes.

To this point, Cowboys opponents haven’t seemed to adjust to Diggs’ performances from week to week. Instead, the Eagles and DeVonta Smith were the next victims of Diggs in man coverage.

At the top of your screen, Diggs is one-on-one against Smith, his former college teammate. Presumably, they know each other pretty well from practice at Alabama, and Diggs won this battle with size and competitiveness.

If the Eagles had focused on how Diggs covered Evans in Week 1, they would have noticed how Diggs loves to jump routes. Any wheel route or double move would have a chance to beat him deep. However, the Cowboys are doing everything possible to force these battles.

By Week 4, the Cowboys and their defensive line have shown a lot of progress in terms of applying pressure to the quarterback. With the drive on the line, Diggs is lined up across from Carolina Panthers wideout DJ Moore on the outside.

On third down, the Cowboys leave Diggs off coverage at the bottom of the screen, which gives him time to read the play. Diggs gets another interception off a curl route.

The next time the Panthers got the ball, they used a stacked lineup on the outside, which sometimes forces the defense to switch. Instead, the Cowboys just place Diggs in the middle of the field to sit in zone coverage.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the coverage allowed Diggs to sit back and wait for his opportunity.

Because the Cowboys generate pressure up front and possess speed in the back, it’s hard to get their defense off balance. In man coverage, they can keep up downfield. In zone coverage, they bring different looks to force quarterbacks into bad throws underneath.

It’s up to the offense to create mismatches against Dallas and take chances deep.

How rookie linebacker Jabril Cox can help the Cowboys’ defense

While Micah Parsons is the big-name linebacker in the Cowboys’ 2021 draft, fourth-round pick Jabril Cox can help, as well.

Predicting the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive starters for the upcoming season is nearly impossible. With the new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn brought on board, free agent pick-ups, draft picks, and recent cuts, it’s true that every single player will have a chance of seeing the field.

One thing was evident for Dallas’ defense in the 2020 season — Mike Nolan may have been the worst defensive coordinator that the Cowboys had in a long time. The Cowboys’ 2020 Defense was the worst in franchise history and 2nd worst in yards allowed; only behind the 2013 team. Though the majority of the season, Nolan left only two linebackers in the middle of the field, even against 12 and even 13 personnel. They had no help.

This is a good lineup against the pass but absolutely terrible if the offense decides to run the ball. The Browns let the Cowboys take themselves out of most plays with their run zone blocking.

There was zero rotation (from the bottom to the top) from the defense when the run-play wass forming. The safety on the bottom of the screen was supposed to shift and step up into the play — instead he stays back and allows the zone blocking scheme form. The defense simply were not put into the position to win. On top the corner blitzed, and I am surprised this was not a touchdown.

The one position in jeopardy would be weakside linebacker — the position of Jaylon Smith. Yes, he was put into some really bad situations last year but if coordinator keeps the same looks with Smith again this year, this defense may be in trouble. 

Smith made some poor decisions in the run game which ended up giving the opponent very good field position early in games. He seemed to have a slow first step forward and that led to him being blocked out of the play and when he had a chance to bring the ball carrier down, he wouldn’t choose the correct pursuit angle, or he would end up letting the play bounce outside.

Jabril Cox, who Dallas selected with the 110th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2021 draft, has some attributes to his game that will be a breath of fresh air for the Cowboys’ defense. His pass coverage ability paired with his closing speed and size, he’s proven that he is a force to be reckoned with. It’s already known that he was an elite defender when dropping back into coverage in college. His awareness in the open field is usually something that translates seamlessly into the NFL. He will most likely be used in situations where he will cover any receiver motioning out to his side, like tight ends, running backs and slot receivers, and this will be in man and zone coverage. He is a quick pursuit style ‘backer with the ability to knock the ball free before the catch and after. What we need to know is if his run defense can hold up at the next level. Can he do what Jaylon Smith can’t?

If he continues to work on his hand-fighting when getting off blocks, he may have a chance of seeing a lot of playing time over Smith.

Cox is able to keep his outside arm free (forcing the ball carrier inside) keep his head up while hand fighting and then breaking down to make the play.

Once again, in the same game, he continues forcing the ball carrier inside which then his other defenders have a chance in helping him out to make the tackle.

Against Mississippi State, Cox did pretty well against the run even when the defensive look was uneven. He stayed in the gap forcing the ball carrier inside to his middle linebacker.

Over and over again throughout the season, we saw Cox have trouble getting off blockers, but as long as he is in the right place in the run game with his first step being forward, he has the ability to force ballcarriers inside to his teammates, and that really is the main goal of a weakside linebacker.

ESPN analyst Marcus Spears fishes for charity, dishes on Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

Marcus Spears gave his thoughts on Dak Prescott after competing in the Academy Sports + Outdoors’ 2021 Bassmaster Classic Celebrity Fishing Tournament

LEWISVILLE, Texas — Former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears and his team placed third in the Academy Sports + Outdoors’ 2021 Bassmaster Classic Celebrity Fishing Tournament on Lake Lewisville June 9.

Spears earned $1,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Louisiana, and says he is humbled to have the opportunity to give back to an organization that helped him and his family growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“They were doing the most work in the area that I grew up in,” Spears said. “They were there. They were visible. I was able to go see them and see what they were doing. I attach myself to them, and they’re still doing great work.”
Although Spears had “home-lake advantage” fishing on a body of water he enjoyed while playing for Dallas from 2005-12, Hall-of-Fame cornerback Deion Sanders finished first and country duo Maddie & Tae placed second.
“Deion Sanders’ team won, but I think it was fixed,” Spears joked.
The ESPN commentator, who regularly appears on First Take and Get Up, also took time to talk about the Cowboys and where they are headed in 2021 given their hiring of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator.
“I expect them to be better,” said Spears. “Going from 32 to the high twenties with that offense and where I expect them to be, you’re a competitive team in this league. I’m not picking them to win the Super Bowl. I don’t think they’re that good, but I definitely think they’re the best team in this division based on coaching changes that were made, based on coming off a non-COVID season, based on playing with five offensive linemen that had never started a game in the NFL.”
The most optimistic part of the Cowboys’ 2021 outlook revolves around the signing of quarterback Dak Prescott to a long-term deal and his on-pace recovery from a broken ankle sustained on Oct. 11, 2020.
Said Spears: “Look, Dallas is fortunate to have Dak. Dak lost his momma. Like, that’s the worst. So, the dude is built to last. He’s built to be a leader, a strong dude. These type of things would affect a normal person a little bit more. I firmly believe that. I’m a fan of a lot of guys in this league, but Dak is up there for me. Obviously the loss of his brother and being able to handle that, being transparent about what he was going through mentally. Man, Dallas is in good hands, man. I was on TV every damn day saying ‘pay the man’ because it was more than just being a good quarterback. It was about this dude has shown you not only that he’s a good quarterback, the team, the way the team responded when he tore his ankle up told you that he was the unquestioned leader on that football team. And then you saw how abysmal it was when he wasn’t out there.”
Cowboys fans are hopeful that the abysmal times are behind them, and Dallas can at least meet, if not surpass, Spears’ expectations of an NFC East title in 2021.

10 facts about Eagles No. 10 overall draft pick WR DeVonta Smith

The Philadelphia Eagles selected Alabama WR Devonta Smith with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Here are 10 facts surrounding the pick.

The Philadelphia Eagles traded with the Dallas Cowboys to take the No. 10 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft Thursday night. With the selection, the Eagles fortified their receiving corps with Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith.

Here are 10 facts surrounding the Eagles’ selection of Smith.

10 best phrases and stories from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is always good for a quote or headline. Here are 10 of Jones’ best phrases and stories.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is at it again.

Jones, who is also the Cowboys’ president and general manager, is alleged to have said owls like to make love with chickens — somehow an analogy for what happens when times are insane. Of course, Jones spun it with his folksy Arkansas style, just as he has with many stories and phrases since buying the team in February of 1989.

Here are 10 of the best stories and phrases from Jones.

NFL reveals announcer schedule for Week 12

A week off for Al Michaels turned into one with another game to call

The deck has already been shuffled for the Week 12 announcing slate because the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game was moved to Sunday due to COVID-19 issues with the Ravens. Al Michaels was going to have the week off … was being the keyword.

Thursday

Houston at Detroit, CBS 12:30 p.m.
Jim Nantz, Tony Romo & Tracy Wolfson

Washington at Dallas, FOX 4:30 p.m.
Joe Buck, Troy Aikman & Erin Andrews

Sunday

Las Vegas at Atlanta, CBS 1 p.m.
Kevin Harlan, Trent Green & Melanie Collins

LA Chargers at Buffalo, CBS 1 p.m.
Greg Gumbel, Rich Gannon & Jay Feely

NY Giants at Cincinnati, FOX 1 p.m.
Kevin Kugler, Chris Spielman & Laura Okmin

Tennessee at Indianapolis, CBS 1 p.m.
Ian Eagle, Charles Davis & Evan Washburn

Cleveland at Jacksonville, CBS 1 p.m.
Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta

Carolina at Minnesota, FOX 1 p.m.
Kenny Albert, Jonathan Vilma & Shannon Spake

Arizona at New England, FOX 1 p.m.
Kevin Burkhardt, Daryl Johnston & Pam Oliver

Miami at NY Jets, CBS 1 p.m.
Andrew Catalon, James Lofton & AJ Ross

Baltimore at Pittsburgh, NBC 1:15 p.m.
Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth & Michele Tafoya

New Orleans at Denver, FOX 4:05 p.m.

Adam Amin, Mark Schlereth & Lindsay Czarniak

San Francisco at LA Rams, FOX 4:05 p.m.
Chris Myers, Greg Jennings, Brock Huard & Jen Hale

Kansas City at Tampa Bay, CBS 4:25 p.m.
Jim Nantz, Tony Romo & Tracy Wolfson
Compass Media: Bill Rosinski, Chad Brown

Chicago at Green Bay, NBC 8:20 p.m.
Mike Tirico, Tony Dungy & Kathryn Tappen

Monday

Seattle at Philadelphia, ESPN 8:15 p.m.
Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick & Lisa Salters